John Sayles Looks at “Men with Guns”

John Sayles is one of the most tal­ent­ed inde­pen­dent direc­tors film­ing today. In movies such as “Broth­er from Anoth­er Plan­et,” “Mate­wan” and “Lone Star,” he’s told sto­ries about every­day peo­ple as they live their lives, try to build bet­ter worlds and find them­selves caught in their human frailty. His lat­est movie, “Men with Guns,” fol­lows a wealthy but dying city doc­tor as he search­es the inte­ri­or of his coun­try for the stu­dents he had trained to treat the indige­nous poor. Like Dorothy fol­low­ing the yel­low brick road, he col­lects a car­a­van of lost souls along the way and learns what his igno­rance has wrought, both per­son­al­ly and for the life of his country.

The tale is set in an anony­mous Latin Amer­i­can coun­try and the ambi­gu­i­ty serves its pur­pose well. This is not the sto­ry of a par­tic­u­lar set of abus­es or a spe­cif­ic gov­ern­ment or army. It is a tale of what hap­pens when cap­i­tal­ism, mil­i­tary rule, rhetoric and human fal­li­bil­i­ty come togeth­er. It is a sto­ry of what hap­pens when good peo­ple refuse to con­front atroc­i­ties being com­mit­ted in their name and instead opt for a will­ing naiveté.

In inter­views, Sayles said he got the image of “men with guns” when he imag­ined the lot of Vietnam’s “rice peo­ple”, politically-simple peas­ants who went on har­vest­ing rice for hun­dreds of years as a suc­ces­sion of “men with guns” came through in waves of ter­ror. It didn’t so much mat­ter if the armies were Chi­nese, French, Amer­i­can or from North Viet­nam: all men with guns rule with what seems an arbi­trary bru­tal­i­ty. The most that the locals can do is stay out of the way.

At it’s heart, “Men with Guns” is a paci­fist and anar­chist movie, though assign­ing such labels dimin­ish­es the work and threat­ens to turn Sayles into anoth­er man­i­festo writer. He’s too inter­est­ing for that and uses story-telling to show us the world and how it works. Ulti­mate­ly, the movie blames every­one for their role in the ter­ror – the sol­diers, the rebels, the priests and our good-hearted but naïve doc­tor. But Sayles also absolves them and pulls them from their car­i­ca­tures as he shows us the larg­er forces that drove them to their roles.

Last Fri­day, Bish­op Juan Ger­ar­di Coned­era, a lead­ing human rights activist in Guatemala, pub­lished a scathing report doc­u­ment­ing abus­es from Guatemala’s 36-year civ­il war; two days lat­er he was mur­dered in his own home by unknown assas­sins. The real-world mod­el for Sayles’ doc­tor was Guatemalan and it’s hard not to see Condera’s mur­der as anoth­er inci­dent of bru­tal­i­ty by men with guns, fig­u­ra­tive­ly if not lit­er­al­ly (his mur­der­er report­ed­ly used a cin­der block). See­ing John Sayles’ lat­est movie would be a fit­ting trib­ute to Condera’s work and that of oth­ers strug­gling for jus­tice in the world.